I was going to write in more detail about this new Quillette piece, but the duck rescue has derailed me for a bit, and this post is already long. Here’s the piece, which shows that what happened in New Zealand—the impending infusion of of academics and science by indigenous myth—seems about to happen in Australia as well. Click to read:
Both authors have extensive experience in teaching indigenous studies; as the article notes, so they don’t seem tendentious:
Terry Moore worked in remote Indigenous education, and taught Aboriginal Studies at three Australian universities. Carol Pybus coordinated UTAS’ first-year Aboriginal Studies program for twenty years.
And both are in favor of “indigenising” Australian universities in the sense of imbuing them with a sense of aboriginal culture and a recounting the horrid history the treatment of indigenous people by “settlers”—a treatment worse, I think, than the way Europeans treated the Māori in New Zealand. In fact, Moore and Pybus bend over backwards to favor such inclusion, and I’m not one to question them.
The problem, they note, is not the infusion of local history and culture (taught honestly) into universities. As in New Zealand, the problem is turning universities into propaganda mills that valorize indigenous people, including buying their mythology as truth and, using a Manichean approach of demonizing “whiteness”, making things more divisive. The authors favor what they call a “liberal” approach:
A liberal approach to Indigenisation recognises the injustice and violence of colonisation, and the on-going structural determination of unequal life opportunities that has resulted. It acknowledges that “whiteness” (to such extent that term is useful) and its associated values are not universal, that they can affect individuals’ capacity to negotiate the world, and that an unbridled individualist ethos can serve to marginalise collective cultural identities. The approach also confronts the fact that earlier research often ignored Indigenous experiences and considered the research subjects as secondary to the development of (white) science and researcher careers. It also accepts that a rebalancing of power in the research relationship (as embedded in the Whole of Community Engagement initiative, led by Charles Darwin University) can help Indigenous people build a healthy sense of identity, and that the judicious embedding of Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum can be genuinely helpful toward advancing reconciliation.
Given the history of Australia, this sounds absolutely reasonable. But, as in the U.S. and New Zealand, this process seems to be going too far—to the point of telling untruths that comport with indigenous mythology or “remembered” history, as well as denigrating whiteness and judging people on their ancestry. And the proponents of the divisive approach are the same class of people who do this in the U.S. and New Zealand: the elites
Doesn’t this sound familiar?
Unfortunately, this critical liberal approach to Indigenisation is being overtaken by an identity-based form that stigmatizes normal academic debate and critique as a form of harm visited upon Aboriginal minds. Activists who hew to the American-influenced social justice movement routinely emphasize postmodern doctrines that cast knowledge as entirely subjective in nature, and science as inherently racist and exploitative. They have translated these understandings into a totalising focus on the injustices done by the dominant capitalist structures of Australian society to working class, female, gay, non-white, disabled, and transgendered individuals. The university is presented as an inherently colonial and oppressive institution that must be overhauled to prioritise belief, feelings and subjectivity over evidence.
In our experience, this identity-based and illiberal approach to Indigenisation is primarily championed by an academic elite whose members are predominantly drawn from regional and urban backgrounds in Australia’s south and on its east coast. It’s a professional clique whose members often have little authentic connection to heritage culture—so much so that several have been accused of having no Aboriginal ancestry whatsoever.
Within this academic/activist subculture, there is an oversized level of attention paid to public symbols and details of language—especially those that are deemed microaggressions. In keeping with their counterparts in other parts of the English-speaking world, they co-opt American social-justice parlance by agitating for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” denigrate whiteness, and promote a mythologized version of Indigenous culture and beliefs that casts Aboriginal people as perpetual victims and strips them of agency. At UTAS, Indigenisation has led to the denigration and replacement of an entire discipline-based critical Aboriginal Studies program with a single first-year unit that consists of a “country tour guided by Palawa Elders and Knowledge Holders,” whose content predictably blurs the line between academic instruction and political sloganeering.
Science will be affected, of course:
(From above): Activists who hew to the American-influenced social justice movement routinely emphasize postmodern doctrines that cast knowledge as entirely subjective in nature, and science as inherently racist and exploitative.
. . . Many units also integrate far more dubious (and faddish) studies of “whiteness,” so as to denaturalise the purportedly false universalism of scientific knowledge—even if this kind of effort often is couched in deliberately hazy language that obscures the obvious tension between science and spiritualism.
. . . The dynamic [of divisive indigenisation] is reflected too, in the story of Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 non-fiction book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, in which the well-known Australian writer makes a number of claims about Aboriginal people and society that are refuted by history and science, but which are now popularly accepted (such as the claim that Aboriginals have lived in Australia for 120,000 years, roughly double the actual figure).
That reminds me of the claim by some in New Zealand that it is absolutely true that the Polynesians (ancestors of the Māori) discovered Antarctica in the seventh century. Not so: Antarctica was discovered in 1820 by the Russians.
. . . One reason these ahistorical and reductionist stereotypes of early Aboriginal societies are accepted by so many academics is that they read back to us our own mythologized visions of communal, pre-industrial life. In this imagined world of peace and harmony, the elders are universally respected repositories of timeless, spiritually understood truths that exist beyond the scrutiny of science (or even the comprehension of outsiders). This is the kind of “pseudo-profound bullshit” (as one academic paper has described it) that was evident in a recent ABC Science dispatch produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, in which an Indigenous academic explained Indigenous spirituality as a sort of proto-environmentalism in which “everything is connected and needs respect—not just humans, animals, trees and rocks—but land and sky, and past and present.”
The view that “everything is connected” in a spiritual sense is also part of the “ways of knowing” Mātauranga Māori from New Zealand. It sounds good and spiritual-ish, but doesn’t mean much. As my advisor Dick Lewontin once said, the fact that the laws of physics apply throughout the universe doesn’t mean that the motions of Saturn have any effect on my gardening.”
The whole “divisive” indigenising movement sounds too close to the New Zealand situation for comfort. Aussie scientists and academics should ensure that myths are not treated as truths, or that indigenous “ways of knowing” are equated to modern science. In the end, the authors make a reasonable call to infuse local culture and history into academics—but not at the expense of objective truth:
Our goal should be to bring the same thoughtful, critical perspective to bear on Indigenous issues that we bring to every other subject. We are in complete agreement with those who say that issues pertaining to Aboriginal peoples once were either ignored, or taught in a racist way. But thankfully, those days are long past. And it won’t do anyone any good—especially Aboriginal people themselves—if we insist that making amends for past wrongs requires us to renounce considered debate and the disinterested search for truth.
17 thoughts on “Quillette: Indigenous “ways of knowing” in Australia”
“A liberal approach to Indigenisation…acknowledges that “whiteness” (to such extent that term is useful) and its associated values are not universal.”
Historically, human rights are “associated values of whiteness”. Do the authors reject universal human rights?
A couple of thoughts:
“This tendency to propagate dubious mythologies about Indigenous cultures and people, and the attendant marginalising of real scholarly knowledge, stems from well-intentioned impulses.”
I disagree. I think it stems from soemthing not “well-intentioned” at all: people wanting to be lionized, while being so damned lazy that they can’t be bothered doing even the most basic work. The authors seem to recognize this when, later, they write:
“Meanwhile, the amount of substantive and accurate knowledge concerning Indigenous Australians that is actually transmitted to students seems to be decreasing thanks to Indigenisation—because many university administrators are principally concerned with advancing the politics we have outlined (and their own reputations as champions of reconciliation).”
Finally: “But it is the third stage—which affects the actual content of university education—that is of most concern to us.”
I would agree, but also note that by the time you get anywhere NEAR that third stage, it’s way too late.
The Quillette piece seems to imply that universities don’t currently invent fake histories and advance politicized narratives.
The Quillette piece seems to imply that universities don’t currently invent fake histories and advance politicized narratives.
From the article:
From John McWhorter’s newsletter today:
Racial identity politics will, I think, burn itself out when folks realize how insulting and infantilizing it is to be assumed bereft of agency. Actually, I think many already do, so all it will take is for them to push back against the perpetual-victimhood movement in large numbers. (I think the fact Trump got more votes from Black men in 2020 than 2016 is some evidence of this pushback already starting.)
Re “Racial identity politics will, I think, burn itself out when folks realize how insulting and infantilizing it is to be assumed bereft of agency.”
I find myself perpetually astonished and embarrassed on behalf of “marginalized people” who are continually portrayed by their (mostly white, I presume?) “allies” as weak, helpless, utterly lacking in agency and more or less morally infantile.
I would not want to be portrayed that way. I’m not sure why anyone would.
I am discomfited about the repeated statements that this errant behavior comes from America. I’d have thought it co-evolved across various western countries, synchronized by meme flow. I hope to be right on this one.
When do we think that the ‘indigenous science’ movement will come to Europe? How will it look? Druids and homeopathy? Or do people forget that Europeans are indigenous to Europe? (Relatively speaking, anyway; go back a few billion years, we all come from the oceans.)
By suggesting that Europeans are indigenous to Europe, you have committed a microaggression. Surely, the “decolonize STEM” and similar movements have taught us that the colonizers—i.e., white Europeans—cannot by definition be indigenous anywhere. Your post makes minoritized people feel unsafe, and will be reported forthwith to the DEI Commissariat.
“It’s Africans all the way down, young man!”
I’m sure if “indigenous ways of knowing” proves useful for advantage or advancement then white folk in Europe and the US will co-opt it for themselves and call anyone who disagrees a “reverse racist”. I suspect however that “indigenous ways of knowing” will just end up as another way to compartmentalise and control indigenous people so it’s unlikely Europeans will want to adopt it.
> I suspect however that “indigenous ways of knowing” will just end up as another way to compartmentalise and control indigenous people
That may be true, but I don’t think that will be widely recognized for generations. In the meanwhile, I know more than enough counterculture neopagan homeopaths in Europe who would jump on the chance to legitimize their beliefs. That is precisely the demographic that shies away from that kind of deeper academic understanding – and that yearns for traditional tribalism. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the travellers tied up in this.
Q: How do we know traditional medicine doesn’t work?
A: If it did, we’d just call it ‘medicine’.
The indigenous movement in Australia has longer roots (and much greater traction) than in NZ, even though there are fewer of them in Australia as a %. Historically treatment of aboriginals has been on an order of magnitude worse than Maoris in NZ.
The woke nonsense is gaining a footing in Australia I’ve noticed – which is bad for everybody.
formerly of Australia
The dark emu controversy has been raging on conservative websites in Australia, taking what were contentious claims and turning them into a full-on culture war artefact that needs to be politically destroyed. In the context of the conversation of what’s going on in Australia, this article feels more politically timed than anything going on in the universities…
Below is the Australian Curriculum for school up to Year 10 (16yo), and how Aboriginal issues are interwoven into each subject.
It’s been said before – there is no problem shining a spotlight on this important part of history, and really educating people about the first peoples.
But when it is phrased as actual rigorous science and maths, as if this fact was mendaciously suppressed all these years (implying Western Science did this to establish itself as the dominant narrative) – then there is a problem.
It is as if there is honest intent to redress wrongs and teach what was – but to do this, it must be elevated beyond its scope – it is ‘real truth’, it is ‘better’.
A few quick quotes from the curriculum, and from the specific science subjects:
“The elaborations acknowledge that Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have worked scientifically for millennia and continue to contribute to contemporary science. They are scientifically rigorous, demonstrating how Indigenous history, culture, knowledge and understanding can be incorporated into teaching core scientific concepts.”
“investigating how prior to germ theory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples used their scientific observations to develop traditional medicines to treat wounds and infections of the skin”
“considering how the traditional ecological knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is being reaffirmed by modern science and how this is generating new career opportunities in the field of restorative ecology”
“Students investigate how First Nations people use geological knowledge and sophisticated mining techniques to extract ochre, and the chemical processes employed to make pigments and dyes. Students analyse how the colonisation of Australia impacts the sharing of Indigenous sciences and disrupts First Nations people’s connection to Country.” (First part good – 2nd part not-science’).
No problem – except each is shoehorned into science and maths – not history/culture. Science/maths should NOT be divorced from the human and the past – but these extracts frame it as ‘science equivalent to modern science’.
Gee – can’t have too long a post – and so the above makes me sound anti-indigenous, perhaps. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just want to celebrate the indigenous culture honestly, and not create a new myth about it.
I have a lovely app that when point my phone at the night sky, I can see the Aboriginal constellations – the Emu, the Turtle etc – wonderful…but I do not then extrapolate that they were so advanced they had ‘better’ constellations and better astronomy…of course they observed and found patterns and it served them well. Fantastic. Teach it. Learn it. Celebrate it. But don’t remove some real science topic to make room for anthropology in my Physics class.
(Look, it is probably a tiny % of the subject devoted to including some element of Aboriginal thinking in science – so I am probably more upset at the Principle – but reading the New Zealand experience, I feel I am sliding down a slippery slope into a fallacious black hole…
Exactly. ISTM that a significant confusion arises from widespread ignorance that *technology* is very different from *science*. Every human society has various technologies (such as fire, herbal treatments, and astronomical calendars); and comparing these and their histories is an interesting area of study, which can help foster understanding between cultures.
But, science is mainly a method for acquiring reliable knowledge. These days much of that knowledge is indeed applied to make or improve various technologies, but they are still very different domains. With this understanding it is very clear that indigenous technologies are not remotely similar to modern science.
Sadly, it seems that current political forces don’t care about the distinction.
Reply to Deni Pisani at #9.
The idea that pre-scientific people (or anyone before Fleming) knew about the antibiotic properties of molds and plants is a canard that pops up everywhere. Antibiotics are not used in/on open wounds. Dressings themselves are empiric and remain so to this day although some randomized trials of technology for difficult-to-treat wounds like venous stasis ulcers have been done. If the traditional knowledge does not include the concept of debridement—sometimes including the removal of live worms and larvae— it is woo, no matter what is put in the dressing. The best way to prevent foot infections (and systemic parasite infections) in the tropics is to wear shoes.
Today when anyone mentions mouldy poultices, laypeople immediately think, “Penicillin!” But just because traditional healers scraped stuff off rotting trees and moldy orange peel and gooped it into a wound does not mean that there were any substances in the goop that we recognize today as antibiotics. Only a few strains of mould make antibiotics and drug companies used to screen millions of mould isolates to find one that might yield a new one. (Nowadays they synthesize them from scratch, or they modify existing ones.)
I realize tall tales about foreknowledge of antibiotics by Indigenous healers in the New World, and gypsies in the Old, is a mandatory feature of reconciliation propaganda but it is Nonsense.